Strengthening grip

China’s expansion in Indian Ocean region

China has announced recently about its plan to that it would setup its first military base in the Indian Ocean Island of Seychelles. According to officials, this facility will be solely for the purpose of seeking supplies and recuperating facilities for its Navy; however, it is a significant addition to China’s footprint in the region which is only expanding, with maritime facilities such as port and naval bases.

Thus, Beijing’s expansion in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a cause of concern, especially for countries like USA, India and Japan. The strategic geo-political space in and around the Indian Ocean may witness intense challenges as world giants may work endlessly to secure their interests along the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), even if it comes at the cost of conflict escalation.

A security dilemma may surface, as defensive move by one nation is seen as threatening the other’s security. However, it is the vicious cycle of security paranoia that could result in heightened conflicts if countries don’t adjust and cooperate within the limited but strategically important space.

Aware that the SLOC’s are vulnerable to threats from state and non-state actors, Beijing is concerned that China’s inability to protect its SLOC’s could be used as a bargaining chip against it during times of war. Therefore, technically speaking, China has begun establishing its footprint across the Indian Ocean Region. Whether the commonly known ‘String of Pearls’ theory is true or not, the truth is that China is mindful of its vulnerabilities and is mitigating it in several ways.

Enhancing capabilities

China is developing capabilities to project itself as a naval and military power in the Indian Ocean. It has port facilities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, while a strategic deep sea port may be underway in Gwadar, Pakistan. The location of this port is strategic. Being 400 kms east of the Strait of Hormuz, it could provide China with a post from where it could monitor and control US activity in the Gulf and Indian activity in the Arabian Sea. This would also add significant might to Pakistan’s otherwise grim maritime potential, spelling worry for India.

China is also funding projects like canals across Thailand and military tie ups with Cambodia. It is diversifying its energy transport options by developing pipelines and other transport links to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and potentially, Pakistan. It is developing considerable economic and political influence with some Indian Ocean States as well.

The base in Seychelles is regarded significant as China is about to launch its first aircraft carrier. In addition, Chinese naval fleets have re-supply facilities at harbors at Djibouti, Oman and Yemen since China sent its first convoy for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2008.

China has also already cemented its foothold in the Indian Ocean by signing a contract with the UN backed International Seabed Authority to gain rights to explore polymetallic sulphide ore deposit in the Indian Ocean for the next fifteen years. China will have exclusive rights to explore 10,000 sq kms in Southwest Indian Ocean.

Sea power

Although they are superior in land security management, China has long believed that all great powers are sea powers and dreamed of being one itself. China is mindful that piracy and terrorism are not the major threats. It is the ability of other states to block its trade routes that is troublesome.

China’s sudden ascent in the 21st century paved the way for declaring its maritime intentions. In 2012, its ruling Communist Party made it clear that becoming a sea power was central to its national strategy for the coming decade. This announcement was followed by rigorous maritime institutional reforms, like setting up a National Maritime Committee to strengthen the governance and management of ocean and maritime affairs, both civil and military. China also increased its defense budget, a large part of which was attributed to naval development.

Thus, China wants to ensure that it can protect its increasing geo-political interests and vital sea routes it uses to import critical resources. In addition, it has abandoned its old foreign policy of keeping a low profile and hiding capabilities and instead, adopted the strategy of actively engaging globally.

Becoming a sea power is close to China’s heart and it is evident with the way China has expanded in the three strategic waterways-Indian Ocean, South China Sea and East China Sea. Determined to set up strongholds to ensure access to world markets and resource channels for supplies, China has aggressively demonstrated its strong willingness.

However, China’s maritime strategy so far has been ambiguous, harboring doubt and distrust amongst neighboring countries. China’s growing naval presence is perceived as a threat and source of conflict. This goes against its claim of a being a ‘peacefully risen’ country. As China continues to expand its sea power in the years to come, conflicts may result in distrust and tensions will escalate.

Perceived threat

Many in India feel that each of China’s moves in the Indian Ocean is meant to ‘encircle’ India by building a ‘String’ of naval bases. India’s concern is justified to a great extent because China’s strategy seems to be directed towards strategically off-balancing India in the region. Consequently, India’s aim and long-tem source of concern in the Indian Ocean is now consumed with countering China’s moves.

India has responded to China’s perceived threat in the Indian Ocean by developing its own military capabilities in the Strait of Malacca. But a security dilemma may now exist between the two countries as certainly a rivalry between the two has the potential to spread across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Despite this, however, threat from China’s maritime presence in the Indian Ocean region can be mitigated by India easily. Technically, it does not present any realistic military threat to India. On the contrary, the Indian Ocean is India’s backyard where it holds a clear geographical and military advantage over China. The Indian Navy’s continued presence in the Indian Ocean is precisely what makes China anxious and India must exploit its anxiety.

However, India needs to speed up its defence modernization program. Having the military strength powered with defence capabilities will give India the boost to establish its firm control in the Indian Ocean waters.

Also, because India does not have the economic capacity to match China’s overall naval capabilities, it will have to rely on geography more. India has a natural advantage in the Indian Ocean, including short lines of communication to its own bases and resources along its coast where China has disadvantages. The Indian Ocean is a long way from China as well and control of the choke points could be useful for bargaining in the international power game.

There is a sense that China is seeking to deny India its legitimate presence in the Indian Ocean. Chinese sentiment of disdain and reluctant admiration explains much of Beijing’s attitude towards New Delhi. It is concerned about India’s strategy in the Indian Ocean, especially because India has embarked on a rapid defense modernization program. The Chinese also view the Indo-US partnership as a strategy to counter China in the region. They fear that India could become a part of an alliance consisting of USA, Japan and Taiwan, which would later challenge China in the South China Sea.

In absolute terms, the USA is still the more capable with a presence that is more far reaching than that of any other power, including China. Only the US can be active across the agenda of geopolitics, trade, human rights and natural disasters and most importantly, the protection of the global commons. China’s ambition or capacity to become a major Indian Ocean Power is primarily limited to China’s focus on its own economic development.

Although America’s ‘Rebalancing Asia’ policy is understood as a military-driven play, it doesn’t mean that it would stop playing the role it has played so far across the region. Many still believe that no power can provide all the services that the sole superpower has provided for two decades. China might be a superpower in its own right, but is still not an equivalent to USA, whose presence and influence is of a different nature altogether.

However, although China’s maritime objectives in shipbuilding and port construction around the Indian Ocean are driven by commercial interests, it is reasonable to assume that the large investments could later be used for military purposes.

Hence, claims of Chinese foreign policy thinkers suggesting that Beijing’s rise is meant to be a peaceful one, despite such expansionist intentions almost falls flat. China’s challenge to India in its own backyard is certainly a cause of concern for India, but India’s wisdom lies in maintaining the strategic advantage it has as an Indian Ocean country while silently pursuing its defense modernization program. USA, on the other hand, will remain unchallenged as the sole maritime power, at least for some time, simply because the role it plays as a power is much more comprehensive than what China is capable of at the moment.

The countries must also use this opportunity to engage in confidence building measures as certain issues are common threats to their interests.